‘Prizes are for boys,’ said Charles Ives, the American composer, upon receiving the Pulitzer in 1947, ‘and I’ve grown up now.’ He was using humour to make a serious point, but it would be lost on many people today. Never has there been a lusher time for self-congratulation; when all, as in Alice in Wonderland, must have prizes.
Not all prizes are bad. Nathan Filer, who collected the Costa last month for his first novel, The Shock of the Fall, was granted the kind of recognition that evades most first-time authors. The Costa, formerly the Whitbread, has a reputable tradition that values quality of writing above commercial considerations. Good for them.
There was a time when you could say something similar about the Evening Standard drama awards. No longer, alas. Last year the judging panel had Helen Mirren down as best actress, to the surprise of three members, who, being ignorant of Mirren’s nomination and peeved to learn of it, promptly resigned. The Standard also minted special gongs for Kevin Spacey, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Maggie Smith, presumably because they are very good and very famous, and Evgeny Lebedev, the Standard’s retiring proprietor, likes to see pictures of them in his paper.
This weekend brings the Baftas, which has been transformed uncomfortably in recent years from a domestic event, well worth watching, into a Hollywood-style beanfeast, complete with American stars, in a hamfisted attempt to make it ‘international’. It has lost a bit of dignity but it will never, one trusts, descend to the crassness of the Grammys, which this year brought us Beyoncé (a pop singer, m’lud) dressed like a tart. The lifetime achievement award went to the Beatles, half a century after they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, whereupon Ringo Starr presented the idiot’s grin he has spent the last 50 years trying to perfect to an audience that had stood to honour Paul McCartney.
The Beatles were giants of popular culture. It is harder to make so bold a claim for Ant and Dec, who dominated last month’s National Television shindig, picking up something called a Landmark award. It didn’t stop Bruce Forsyth, a superb popular entertainer, comparing them with Morecambe and Wise, which must have left a few viewers of a certain vintage choking on their fig rolls.
‘Landmark’! Doesn’t it sound grand? But wait, what about the GQ awards, held last autumn at the Royal Opera House, which offered its audience a Legend, an Icon, an Inspiration and a Genius! When words lack meaning, as these do, awards become interchangeable, and last year’s icon is next year’s genius. When Piers Morgan and Russell Brand are honoured, if that is the verb, then it really is time to reach for one’s hat.
For consistently choosing the wrong people, though, the mummers take some stopping, and there is plenty of scope for embarrassment at next month’s Oscar ceremony, with or without Woody Allen. The Golden Globes was merely the starting gun in this annual parade of tosh. Does any serious film-goer really think that a phrase like ‘Oscar–worthy’ offers any indication of merit? Yet year after year we are invited to believe that these awards truly honour the very best work.
Members of this duffer’s academy have, over the decades, revealed an overwhelming ignorance of the trade they represent. This is the body of men and women who, in 1974, gave the best actor award to Art Carney when Jack Nicholson was up for Chinatown (Al Pacino was up, too). The folk who withheld an award from Cary Grant, the finest leading man in Hollywood history, and who snubbed Alfred Hitchcock. Full marks to Anthony Hopkins, who told the truth last year about the endless lobbying and back-scratching that goes on. If you’re in that game it is compulsory.
Are there any awards we can respect? You can’t take the Turner Prize seriously: it’s a carnival of mediocrity. The Brits is a jamboree for teenagers of all ages and even the Man Booker Prize, while throwing up the occasional Barnes or Ishiguro, cannot claim to represent fiction in its brightest colours. Nor, for all its lofty aims, does the biggest literary prize of them all. Pearl Buck is a Nobel laureate. Tolstoy and Conrad are not.
Perhaps the one that comes closest to the ideal of recognising work of true distinction is the David Cohen Prize. Established in 1993, with the intention of celebrating the life’s work of British and Irish writers, it has to date honoured the likes of Muriel Spark, William Trevor, Harold Pinter, V.S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. Proper writers, whose work is likely to keep readers interested for decades to come.
For, as Tony Bennett replied, when he was told he had not had many hits: ‘I like to think I have a hit catalogue.’ That’s an ideal we can all salute.